5/19/2021Iowa Supreme Court Rescues State From Refunding Illegally Issued Traffic Tickets
Iowa will not have to refund 22,000 speeding tickets issued by state employees who had no legal authority to issue those citations.
The Iowa Supreme Court stepped in last week to save the state government from the prospect of having to pay back millions of dollars in illegally issued traffic tickets. The justices unanimously decided to fall back on procedural problems to deny Rickie Rilea's claim for a refund of $465 paid after being pulled over in 2016 by an Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) employee who at the time lacked any legal authority to issue him a citation. The decision closes the door for 22,000 other motorists who were ticketed under similar circumstances.
"This case is about whether the state should face consequences for the IDOT implementing an illegal policy to issue millions of dollars' worth of traffic tickets without lawful authority, at the expense of persons like Rilea," Brandon Brown, the motorist's attorney, had argued. "If there is no claim for unjust enrichment, and no penalty to the state, there is nothing to deter the state and its agencies from similar actions in the future."
The high court agreed that IDOT's commercial motor vehicle enforcement officers were unlawfully conducting "citizen's arrest" traffic stops to hand out speeding tickets to ordinary drivers. At the time, the law only gave them the ability to ticket big-rig truckers for violations related to registration and the size or weight of the load. Rilea had no idea that the IDOT employee who pulled him over was not a police officer. He saw someone in uniform that looked like a state trooper with a badge and a gun, driving a car with flashing red lights. The employee asked for Rilea's license, registration and proof of insurance before proceeding to claim he had been driving 66 MPH in a 55 MPH zone. Rilea paid the ticket, not realizing until much later what had happened.
The justices concluded that the state was not "unjustly enriched" by the illegally issued fines because Rilea paid the citation after pleading guilty in court. Because the fine was properly paid, there was no reason to give the money back.
"The state's retention of Rilea's payment of the fine would only become unlawful if the underlying conviction were overturned," Justice Matthew McDermott wrote for the high court. "Rilea's conviction has never been challenged, let alone overturned... Yet the undisturbed conviction requires us to leave undisturbed too the state's lawful receipt of the fine that accompanied it."
A copy of the decision is available in a 100k PDF file at the source link below.